Why take Margaret Atwood’s advice?
“Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan.”
Poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist and environmental activist, Margaret Eleanor Atwood, CC OOnt FRSC (born November 18, 1939) is among the most-honoured authors of fiction in recent history. She is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias award for Literature, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General’s Award seven times, winning twice. She is also a founder of the Writers’ Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada’s writing community. Small wonder The Economist called her a “scintillating wordsmith” and an “expert literary critic”.
At 75, Margaret Atwood is still one of the world’s most sought-after speakers and is also a prolific writer and twitterer. She is the author of more than 50 volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction and non-fiction, and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid’s Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2000.
Margaret Atwood’s work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian.
Due to her father’s research work in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec and traveling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was in grade 8. She became a voracious reader of literature, Dell pocketbook mysteries, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Canadian animal stories, and comic books.
Atwood began writing at the age of six and realized she wanted to write professionally when she was 16. In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honours) and a minor in philosophy and French.
In late 1961, after winning the E.J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poems, Double Persephone, she began graduate studies at Harvard’s Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. She obtained a master’s degree (MA) from Radcliffe in 1962 and pursued further graduate studies at Harvard University for two years but never finished because she failed to complete her dissertation on “The English Metaphysical Romance.” She has taught at the University of British Columbia (1965), Sir George Williams University in Montreal (1967–68), the University of Alberta (1969–70), York University in Toronto (1971–72), the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (1985), where she was visiting M.F.A. Chair, and New York University, where she was Berg Professor of English.
In June 2011, Atwood was conferred with an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature (honoris causa) from the National University of Ireland, Galway. On November 16, 2012, Atwood received an honorary degree from the Royal Military College of Canada.
So what is Margaret Atwood’s advice?
Here are the ten rules for writing from Margaret Atwood, celebrated novelist, poet, essayist and winner of the Man Booker prize in 2000:
Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like
shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualisation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.
Watch these videos for more of Margaret Atwood’s indispensable advice for writers:
Hungry for more?
- Lecture on poetry: On Writing Poetry (delivered at Hay-on-Wye)
- Lecture on madness: Ophelia Has A Lot To Answer For (delivered at Stratford Festival)
- Margaret Atwood on Wikipedia
- Margaret Atwood’s web site
- The Sunday Rumpus interview
- Allan Gould interview
- Paris Review interview
- Twitter: @MargaretAtwood
- Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MargaretAtwoodAuthor